Movies like The Nutcracker in 3D are the result of directors who put off having that long, thoughtful conversation with their inner child. Those of you expecting some facsimile of the original Tchaikovsky ballet will be sorely disappointed, as will those of you expecting an immersive 3D experience – this is probably the worst 2D-to-3D conversion since The Last Airbender. Those of you expecting a charming children’s fantasy will be bewildered and more than a little angry. This movie is bizarre, nonsensical, and unendurably dreary, almost as if it were made with the sole intention of punishing the audience. I suspect that many parents will dutifully take their children to see this film, unaware that they will only end up confused and frightened. I too was taken by the ads, all edited in such a way that they gave not the slightest indication of what co-writer/director Andrei Konchalovsky was really hoping to achieve. That’s a form of cruelty, if you ask me.
With this version of the story, the villainous Rat King and his army are transformed into a fascist regime that closely parallels the Nazis. In what way does this sound appropriate for children? How do you think they will react when they hear about the rats tossing toys into furnaces, producing enough smoke to blot out the sun and keep the city in perpetual darkness? Will they know what to make of the propaganda flyers that constantly rain from above, littering the streets? Will they understand the sudden shifts in tone, as when the Rat King (played by an unrecognizable John Turturro) bursts into a song set to a 1920s swing beat before dancing over to a massive fish tank and electrocuting his pet shark? This is more than cinematic boo-boo. It’s a sign that Konchalovsky is in serious need of a therapist.
But wait a minute. Did I just say 1920s swing? What is that doing in a story musically driven by Tchaikovsky? Questioning this is a moot point; the remaining bits of his score are buried by lyrics, penned by Tim Rice. He’s a gifted lyricist, and if you don’t believe me, listen to the cast recordings of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Evita. Still, I’m shocked he didn’t realize that certain compositions simply don’t require the assistance of words. There’s only one point at which the music is properly utilized, and not surprisingly, it also happens to be the film’s only good scene; a girl named Mary, having ascended an impossibly behemoth Christmas tree, is magically carried through the air and across a piano keyboard in a flurry of dancing snowflakes. Naturally, this moment is musically enhanced by the beautiful “Waltz of the Snowflakes,” which, in the ballet version, marks the end of the first act.
The plot is preposterous and baffling – a mishmash of awkward dialogue, odd character development, and magical events that I suspect were intended to be whimsical. We’re never told when or where it takes place, although the name Dr. Freud is mentioned. So is Albert Einstein, portrayed as a laughable caricature by none other than Nathan Lane, who eventually sings about the Theory of Relativity to the tune of “Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy.” In this story, Einstein is uncle to little Mary (Elle Fanning) and her brother, Max (Aaron Michael Drozin), a toy-destroying monster who shows all the signs of being a sociopath. On Christmas Eve, Mary is given a wooden nutcracker as a gift, one she’s able to bring to life simply by believing such a thing is possible. The talking nutcracker, nicknamed N.C. (voiced by Shirley Henderson), tells her that he’s actually a prince and was placed under a spell by the Rat Queen (Frances de la Tour) so that her son, the Rat King, could take over his kingdom. Wouldn’t that make him the Rat Prince? Never mind.
Mary’s efforts to help N.C. regain control over his kingdom involve the recruitment of three toys that act so strangely, it’s as if we’ve suddenly stepped into the realm of Lewis Carroll. One is a fat clown with a very pronounced lisp. One is an erudite chimpanzee with a stuffy British accent. One is a Jamaican little drummer boy, who I suspect some will find offensive. We also eventually meet N.C. in his human form (Charlie Rowe), a boy of considerable charm. Why couldn’t the filmmakers follow his lead and make the rest of the story the same way?
Other character, like Mary and Max’s parents (Richard E. Grant and Yuliya Vysotskaya), add even more oddness to the film – the mother especially, a woman so disconnected from every situation it’s a wonder she isn’t a regular on Dr. Freud’s sofa. De la Tour doubles as the children’s nanny, Frau Eva, drunk one moment and just plain eccentric the next. What is Konchalovsky trying to tell us here, given that this has been his pet project for the last twenty years? That Mary is a normal girl trapped in a world of loonies? Surely it isn’t that dreams are better than reality, since, according to what we’re shown, both are pretty much the same. The Nutcracker in 3D is a horrendous miscalculation, one of the least enjoyable holiday films ever aimed at children or any other audience. The only saving grace is that Tchaikovsky isn’t alive to see what became of his enchanting ballet.